Stillwater school board votes out superintendent

After a 5-2 vote, Denise Pontrelli will receive roughly $300,000 in her settlement.
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After years of tension, the Stillwater Area School Board voted to end superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s contract.

The board voted 5-2 to cut ties with Pontrelli, who had one year left in her contract.

In the weeks leading up to the decision, a petition on Pontrelli's behalf garnered more than 2,800 signatures. Around 80 percent of the district’s 583 teachers signed a letter of support. The district’s principals sent an additional, unanimous statement of support to the board. Students and alumni of color also signed a letter calling Pontrelli a strong advocate for listening to students’ concerns and addressing racial disparities.

But as the Pioneer Press has chronicled, tension between Pontrelli and some board members and residents has remained since the controversial 2016 decision to close three elementary schools in the southern part of the district.

Pontrelli had argued that the decision would accommodate enrollment trends and reduce inequities, as small schools face inconsistent access to resources. 

The board first voted 5-2 to negotiate a separation agreement in July 2019. Pontrelli then said she didn’t want a buyout, which meant the board would have to pay her for the next two years of her contract, worth more than $450,000, unless they fired her.

Pontrelli will receive a nearly $300,000 settlement, which includes her $195,826 salary and district health plan for the 2020-21 school year, as well as $29,165 accrued vacation leave. She will also receive $64,312 for agreeing not to pursue legal claims against the district.

Board member Shelley Pearson, who announced her resignation at the end of the meeting, voted in favor of ending the contract.

"People are devouring each other and it’s hurting our community, and it’s hurting our kids. I am 100 percent certain that we cannot keep going like this,” she said. “My decision is based on my desire to see everyone work in partnership because I believe we are better together …There have been many opportunities to change course, but it has continued to get worse instead of better.”

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Board member Mark Burns called the decision fiscally and operationally irresponsible, citing financial constraints due to the pandemic and recent turnover in the district.

Assistant superintendent Robert McDowell was hired this spring to start in July as the Hastings superintendent. Finance director Kristen Hoheisel has been on administrative leave since March 30, and last month sued the district and chairwoman of the school board for allegedly violating open-meeting laws.

“Planning for the upcoming school year may be the most challenging in memory. We as a district need every human resource available to effectively plan and execute the delivery of education to our students,” he said at the meeting. “I oppose it simply because it hurts our students, and ultimately, that’s what our decisions have to be based upon: Does it help our students? I don’t believe it does. I believe it hurts our students.”

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